Craft beer labels, once the hip, guarded secret of millennial beer enthusiasts, have entered the mainstream culture. As a result, boutique breweries no longer only produce beer; they are destinations. They offer unique experiences in the form of intimate tours, beer flights and tap-room parties. However, as craft beer has become more accessible, it may play to your advantage to seek out breweries off the beaten path.
The area around Lake Superior offers an ideal blend of natural beauty, outdoor activities, and authentic breweries. A quick survey of the surrounding regions and it’s hop-filled sanctuaries might be just the thing to kickstart your next road trip idea.
Castle Danger—Two Harbors, Minnesota
Two Harbors is the first town you pass through as you enter Minnesota’s rugged and scenic North Shore. With live music, games and outdoor patio area, Castle Danger is an excellent option for anyone looking for a chill, low key experience where tourists interact pleasantly with locals. You can spend your time sampling beer flights or by sipping delicious Castle Cream Ale out of a growler as you test your competitive trivia skills.
Castle Danger’s claim to fame, in addition to being situated in a beautiful part of the world, is that it is a multi-time winner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s beer bracket, where tens of thousands of readers vote on their favorite Minnesota brewery.
The brewery doesn’t actually serve food, but they’re totally cool with it if you’d like to bring your own. There are plenty of great places to get food in Two Harbors, ranging from two pizza joints (who deliver to the brewery) to more good restaurants and cafes than you might expect in a town of 3,500. If your dog likes beer, or if you just like to have your dog with you while you’re drinking, the brewery has no qualms about letting your favorite pet stand guard as knock back a few.
As for Two Harbors, it’s a sweet town for outdoorsy types. There’s the Gooseberry Falls State Park, which contains the massive Lake Superior views, a river, and waterfall, all cast against beautiful backdrops of green (in the spring and summer) or white (in the fall and winter). You might also want to check out the Split Rock Lighthouse, perched on a cliff and overlooking the lake. There are lots of paths to traverse in and around the lighthouse, and the guides inside tend to know their stuff, even if you a student history yourself.
The general area in and around the North Shore and Boundary Waters is chock full of state parks and forest service campsites, meaning that it is a great place to overland and setup your tent for a couple nights (or roof top tent if that is more your speed.)
Bent Paddle — Duluth, Minnesota
In downtown Duluth since 2013, Bent Paddle feels like a combination of outdoorsy city brewery and rugged North Shore shed party. There are big, wide windows that add depth to an already spacious environment, plenty of wooden tables and comfortable chairs and couches. You can even scoot over to the big fireplace in case the Cold Press Black Coffee Ale isn’t enough to keep you warm. You can get outside delivery here, too. Although, you might want to check and see if the food truck is sitting outside (which it often is). Who wants to wait when some gourmet truck food is right outside the door?
Bent Paddle scores additional points in our book for being such loyal and generous supporters of Duluth’s and Minnesota’s bike scene. We can’t explain the connection between craft beer and cycling, but it exists in a big way, especially in Minnesota.
Once you’re done drinking (or before you begin, depending on your propensity for hangovers) you might want to check out the Leif Erickson Rose Garden, assuming the weather permits. It’s a great spot for a stroll where you can admire the roses and other flora, sit by the pretty fountain or just bask in the natural calmness of the Great Lakes Region. Duluth is a decent-sized city so you won’t feel sleepy, and you’ll have a range of other entertainment options. However, it’s still worth visiting the Great Lakes Aquarium and the Lake Superior Railroad Museum if either of those landmarks captures your interest.
Voyageur Brewing Company—Grand Marais, Minnesota
If a brewery can be a classy joint, then Voyageur deserves the label. It has stunning views of Lake Superior, and there’s big outdoor seating area that overlooks the water. It’s an ideal environment to nurse (or guzzle) their IPA or Belgian Wheat. They have a limited but tasty food menu that includes pub favorites like hot wings, giant soft pretzels, and tacos. Real art (in the form of paintings and photographs) adorn the walls and draws guests into the atmosphere of Grand Marais.
If you have even been to Grand Marais, you know that there are plenty of excellent places to grab a bite to eat within just a couple blocks. We think the brewery fills a great void of just being all about the beer.
Speaking of the town, you can purchase any of the artwork you see in Voyageur at Silverston’s Gallery. If art’s your thing, you can also check out the Grand Marais Art Colony, which features works by artists who are currently in residence, or the nearby North House Folk School which features classes on true crafts ranging from traditional canoe building to sausage making. Additionally, there many parks you can visit, including two National parks: Judge C.R. Magney State Park and Grand Portage State Forest. If you visit, be sure to pack your hiking hat and boots and prepare to explore the many hiking trails in the area — there is a seemingly a new trailhead each mile as you cruise up and down the shore or the Gunflint Trail.
Pro tip if you are traveling in the winter. Just up the Gunflint Trail are some phenomenal Lake Trout lakes. The bite really gets going in the late winter. So pack your best ice fishing rod and drop a line, or make it easy on yourself and find a local guide who can set you up.
Do be warned easy hikes get hard in the cold weather, especially when there’s snow and ice. They have real winters in this part of the country, but that is when it is time to grab the cross-country skis or snowmobile and have some fun. Grand Marais is a great place to play, eat, and drink, which is why it made our list of Great Outdoor Towns.
Blackrocks Brewery—Marquette, Michigan
Blackrocks is cozy, which makes sense for a microbrewery. But, by most accounts, the beer is quite good. You can sit at the small bar where patrons tend to rave about the staff, or venture out on your own and snag a spot by the firepit on the patio. They have space heaters outside when it’s cold, but you may still want to bundle up a bit. Like many breweries, there’s no kitchen, per se. However, there’s a BurgerBus on standby that will definitely fulfill your post or pre-drink cravings. Additionally, if you find a beer on tap that you particularly enjoy, you can purchase a six-pack of Coconut Brown Ale (or any of their other offerings) to take home with you. It’s a cool find in the chill town of Marquette.
The 51K IPA is probably our favorite beer from Blackrocks, and it is oustanding.
Outside of Blackrocks, Sugarloaf mountain offers great hiking with striking views of the lakes. Usually, even beginners can find a trail that won’t leave them gasping for breath half-way through, although you might want to rent or invest in some ice cleats if it’s winter time. Alternatively, (or also) you may want to check out Presque Isle Park, so named because it was once an isle. There are lots of bridges to criss-cross, and more adventurous folks dive off the black rock cliff faces. Lastly, you may want to note that Marquette, Michigan is where Northern Michigan University is located. College towns always add a bit of life to the scene.
Cold Iron Brewery—Ironwood, Michigan
Built into a renovated Ottawa National Forest office, you’ll immediately sense the rich natural history tied to the Great Lakes region and the people (both indigenous and colonial) who lived and settled there. Ironwood might not exactly be on Lake Superior, but we consider it a Lake Superior town, being in the Northwoods with the big lake just 10 miles away. The brewery offers a nice selection of IPAs, and you can have a beer (or five) at the bar or in one of the intimate spaces set up inside. There are comfortable couches for relaxed conversation, or if you’re feeling competitive, you can try your hand at Shuffle Board or a few of the other games they have lying around. Another plus is the outdoor bike rack, in case you’ve reached the after a day cruising through Ironwood on two wheels. Finally, although there are not as many food options as some other breweries, you can order food from next door, and the brewery specifically suggests the homefries.
If you’re in the spirit for a hike, don’t let Ottawa National Forest’s name fool you. It might share a name with the Canadian city, but you’ll find it on a map of the United States. Situated in Michigan’s scenic Upper Peninsula, it is another beautiful spot for hiking and waterfall appreciation. Additionally, if you’re there in the winter and feeling adventurous, you might want to check out Copper Peak. It’s the largest artificial ski jump in the world. We highly recommended visiting the brewery as a victory celebration afterword and not beforehand, because we’re not kidding when we say this artificial slope is steep.
Keweenaw Brewery—Houghton, Michigan
It’s tough to go wrong with a $3.00 pint of Pic Axe Brown Ale, but Keweenaw delivers a true craft beer experience, even at budget prices. There’s plenty of room, but it does tend to get crowded, especially when the weekend comes around. Children are welcome here (which may be a plus or minus depending on how your roll). Most patrons get food at Pizza Works, the brewery’s next door neighbor. All in all, in a simpler experience than you might find elsewhere, but you can’t beat the prices or the atmosphere of the back deck in the summertime.
In addition to the Pic Axe, if you are at the taproom try the Hercules Porter. It can be tough to find in liquor stores, but is a real treat and often available at the brewery.
Unless you live nearby, you probably don’t frequent Houghton. It’s a pretty quiet place, population 8,000. It’s home to the Nara Nature Park and the Mineral Museum of Michigan (if you’re particularly fond of rocks and sediment). We cheated a little bit on this one — Houghton isn’t technically on Lake Superior, but it is on a peninsula that juts into Lake Superior. A 5-mile trek in either direction and you will be in the largest of the Great Lakes.
South Shore Brewery—Washburn, Wisconsin
Located in Bayfield County, South Shore Brewery Taphouse feels genuinely homey and community driven. Accessible via the BART bus route, locals donate vinyl records to a growing collection so that brewery patrons can jam out to the favorite tunes while sampling one of the eight different beers on tap. On Tuesdays, they even serve 1.00 dollar pitchers, which are unheard of even in college town dive bars. The master brewer sometimes tends bar and also gives tours, so you’ll get an earful of insider craft brewery knowledge.
While you’re in town, you should consider checking out the Stage North playhouse. They do a variety of Shakespearian plays and serve wine during shows if you’d like to stay pleasantly lubricated throughout your stay in Washburn. If the weather allows, consider checking out the Houghton Nature Preserve (perhaps a bit confusing, it is not near the Houghton mentioned above) or even bringing a tackle box and fishing rod and dropping a line in one of Bayfield County’s 358 lakes. Finally, the Bayfield/Washburn area is home to some world-class sailing and watersports with the Apostle Islands nearby. If you visit in the summer, we suggest you (safely) get on the water and enjoy this slice of the North.